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Return of the Arctic prospectors

The US, running on low, is looking to tap Canadian gas reservoirs.

As the days grow longer, there is more light for the men here to work by. But there's also an urgency in the Canadian Arctic, and not just because spring is melting the ice roads that make their work possible.

For the first time in a generation, Canadian and multinational energy companies are exploring for natural gas in the delta where the Mackenzie River feathers north into the Beaufort Sea. With 64 trillion cubic feet of gas, this region has 10 times the current annual gas production of Canada - a point not lost on its energy-hungry neighbor to the south.

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The Bush administration's energy policy, to be unveiled next week, will put a premium on finding new energy sources. In the past two years, American demand for Canadian natural gas has grown 10 percent annually. Moreover, 95 percent of its new electricity-generating capacity will be fueled by natural gas.

"America's reliance on energy, and fossil fuels in particular, has lately taken on an urgency not felt since the late 1970s," said US Vice President Dick Cheney last week in Toronto to a group of newspaper publishers.

Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien is enthusiastic about the prospect of filling the growing US energy need. "We have fantastic potential and opportunities," he told oil and gas industry representatives in Calgary last month. "The US needs Canadian energy."

Energy companies have committed to spending $1 billion over the next five years in search of natural gas here.

* * *

It's April, and workers have been cramming a season's worth of seismic testing and exploratory drilling into roughly 90 days, when the land is solid in the grip of winter, and the aurora borealis rains down showers of light during the long night. Seismic teams crisscross the tundra, making the earth shake in order to see where oil and gas deposits might be. Well north of Inuvik, the only exploratory rig north of the Arctic Circle is at work: Petro-Canada was drilling 2,500 meters down in search of gas, or hydrocarbons.

The rig, one of the largest in Canada, is made of Arctic steel, able to withstand the cold. It was shipped here disassembled on 80 flatbed trucks, and erected on a 150-square-meter pad of ice, protecting the fragile Arctic tundra. But it was too warm for much of the winter. Rivers weren't frozen deep enough to be safe, so ice-road builders had to flood them with water that would then freeze. On a warm spring evening - five degrees below zero - Petro-Canada engineer Barry Peterson observes, "I'd prefer a nice, steady 25 below."

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* * *

From the air, the sled camp of Veritas DGC Land's Party Seven, a seismic testing team, looks like Legos on the snow: four strings of "mobile home" sized units dragged across the tundra by enormous bulldozer-looking vehicles. Work crews go forth every day to lay a 12-mile-long orange cable across a stretch of tundra. Along the line, every 10 yards, a pack of geophones detect vibrations in the earth.

The vibrations are set off by a battery of 65,000-pound trucks - called shakers - which press large plates to the ground. Every few minutes, the trucks go into a collective conniption, sending tremors, lasting several seconds each, through the plates. Hydrocarbon deposits carry a different vibration pattern than the rock and other geology. The pattern is detected by the geophones and transmitted to a nearby control room. Inside, a computer generates a herringbone tweed pattern, with the thickest lines indicating the possible presence of hydrocarbons.

The entourage moves forward 20 yards at a time, and a few miles a day. Between tremors, the "jughounds" - the workers planting the phones - scramble to pull them up and replant them up the way. The cycle repeats day after day across the gently rolling tundra.

Jim Fancy has come all the way from Parrsboro, Nova Scotia, to be part of Party Seven. "It feels like I'm walking on the moon most of the time," he hollers down from a truck, as the whole line rolls slowly forward.

* * *

Not all Canadians are convinced their gas should go to fuel the American dream. But for the people of the territory, this is a twice-in-a-lifetime opportunity: another chance to tap resources left undeveloped in the 1970s, when a US-Canadian pipeline plan was abandoned.

Back then, while market prices were strong enough to justify the cost of producing and transporting Arctic gas, other factors were out of alignment. Native groups with outstanding land claims blocked the proposed pipeline.

Now, with several claims settled, and other deals in the works, the natives are seeing their own interest in developing the gas.

"We've all learned a lot," says Fred Carmichael, president of the Gwichin Tribal Council in Inuvik. "Everyone sees the need to work together as a team and have controlled development. I truly believe that's happening - in industry, in government, and among the people."

"People have waited a long time for development," says Robert McLeod, deputy minister of resources, wildlife, and economic development in Yellowknife. "I think most people want the opportunities."

Says Nell Cournoyea, chair and chief executive of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation (IRC), one of the main native groups here, "It's not good for communities not to be working. People here are used to working. They like to work.... People desperately want to be independent."

McLeod says 25 years ago, when the first project was delayed, the local population lacked the skills to do more than menial jobs, and so wouldn't have been able to benefit from development had it come.

That's changed, though, says Chris Bradley, vice president for resource operations at the Inuvialuit Development Corporation, the business arm of the IRC. This time, the energy companies have signed agreements to work with the native enterprises, and the list of companies available for the outsiders to work with "has increased dramatically, just over the past six months."

* * *

Scientists lack the data to fully assess the environmental impact of energy exploration here, but there are efforts to use technology to decrease the footprint of this activity.

"GPS [global positioning systems] is making surveying much easier," says Mr. Carmichael, the Gwichin tribal council president. Specially designed widetrack vehicles leave shallower tracks on the tundra.

Also, computer advances enable scientists to make three-dimensional renderings of what lies underground. The renderings allow for precision in placing drills, saving needless dry holes in the ground. On the downside, 3D testing requires far more tracks across the land.

Leonard Harry, who worked as a jughound in the 1970s exploration boom, now monitors wildlife for Veritas. He surveys for bear dens, foxes, caribou, and other wildlife, and determines if the crew needs to take a detour.

"I think the seismic is getting better," says Mr. Harry, recalling his own experience. Today's jughounds disturb the surface less as they plant their phones than his group did, he adds.

But seismic testing still impacts the wildlife. There's too little data yet to quantify the effects. But John Nagy, a wildlife management supervisor for the territorial government, has been tracking the movements of barren-ground caribou with radio collars for six years. On this basis, he predicts the winter's seismic testing will have only a "minimal effect" on caribou habitat above tree line. Below tree line, though, there is habitat loss. The tracks left by explorers are like superhighways for the wolves that prey on caribou, effectively confining the herds to smaller areas. Nagy says the numbers of woodland caribou are down to 5,000, and they are at risk of extinction.

"Certainly the procedures are different nowadays," says Ms. Cournoyea, of IRC. "They don't use dynamite the way they used to - but we'll see." In the coming months, she says, they will assess the season's work, looking at wildlife impact, hiring practice, and interface with the community.

* * *

With the winter just ended, the ice roads have closed. Energy firms are studying the seismic data to plan next year's drilling. "In the next couple of years, I have the feeling we're going to be very, very busy," says Jerry Kisoun, a boardmember of the Inuvik Community Corporation, a local development organization.

Bradley says that for the local communities to become more than just junior partners in Canada's energy industry, activity here must go beyond exploration to actual production - pumping gas out of the ground and piping it south. It's going through the complete cycle, he explains, that will really develop the skills base of local individuals and companies.

"During the last boom," he says, "they never got beyond the exploration - so there was nothing left behind. Until we get to the development stage, we're still at risk."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor